North Carolina Laws

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Unfortunately, a lot of what many people believe to be true about lock picks and the practice of picking locks in the State of North Carolina is based on "folk law" - things that they've heard from others, and not actual law. Based on purely allegorical evidence, it would also seem that some of the members of the North Carolina Locksmith's Association continue to perpetuate their biased view of the law - that picks are illegal. I've heard many stories of licensed locksmiths in our state telling people that their possession of lock picks is illegal, and we've actually had one come to a meeting and say the same. Their claim is that it is illegal but just not enforced. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer so this should not be considered legal advice. If you have any legal questions you should consult with your own attorney.

Let's take a look at what our laws actually state.

Locksmith Licensing

Chapter 74F, known as the Locksmith Licensing Act regulates the profession of Locksmithing in the state of North Carolina. Sections 74F-1 through 74F-4 are the most relevant for our purposes since the rest of this Act just talks about how the licensing board works, fee structures, licensing requirements, etc. The Locksmith Licensing Act makes it illegal to accept compensation for providing locksmith services without a license. According to 74F-4, these include,

"Services that include repairing, rebuilding, rekeying, repinning, servicing, adjusting, or installing locks, mechanical or electronic locking devices, access control devices, egress control devices, safes, vaults, and safe-deposit boxes for compensation or other consideration, including services performed by safe technicians. The definition also includes any method of bypassing a locking mechanism of any kind, whether in a commercial, residential, or automotive setting, for compensation."

While you can let your neighbor into their locked house at their request, you can't accept any compensation for this. Keep in mind that it says compensation and doesn't say money. This includes non-cash items. Contrary to what the Locksmith's Association board or members may tell you, mere possession of locksmith tools and or using them for personal practice (or even to help someone out) does not put you in violation of this law. Note for those in the security industry that practice physical penetration testing or perform physical assessments that testing services are not included in the list of services. However any remediations you identify must be performed by a locksmith.

Burglary Tools

North Carolina General Statute covers the use of "burglary tools" (which lock picks would fall under) in SUBCHAPTER IV. OFFENSES AGAINST THE HABITATION AND OTHER BUILDINGS. Article 14, Burglary and Other Housebreakings. Two sections are relevant to our practice of locksport / lock picking.

Section 14-55. Preparation to commit burglary or other housebreakings says,

"If any person shall be found armed with any dangerous or offensive weapon, with the intent to break or enter a dwelling, or other building whatsoever, and to commit any felony or larceny therein; or shall be found having in his possession, without lawful excuse, any picklock, key, bit, or other implement of housebreaking; or shall be found in any such building, with intent to commit any felony or larceny therein, such person shall be punished as a Class I felon."

Let's break out a couple key sections here:

  • "with the intent to" - While some state laws try to draw conclusions that possession of so called "burglary tools" implies that the possessor intends to commit a crime, the State of North Carolina puts the burden of proving intent on the prosecutor. Intent is difficult to get at. How can the prosecutor determine what was in your mind at the time it was found that you had "burglary tools" in your possession? They can't, so it has to be shown through other circumstances. These might include combination with another crime like trespass, or catching you at 2 AM with your picks or bypass tool in a door.
  • "or shall be found having in his possession, without lawful excuse, any picklock, key, bit, or other implement of housebreaking" - If you engage in lock picking as a hobby, and are not providing unlicensed services, you have a "lawful excuse", and the state still has to prove that your intent wasn't to engage in the hobby. The next section lists the items that are included. Picklock is an old term that may connotate a person who picks locks, but in this case it essentially means lock picks. The next part says, "key, bit, or other implement of housebreaking". So if someone says that listing "picklocks" here makes them illegal then that would also apply to your house or car key, or tools you may have in your tool box like screwdriver bits, screwdrivers, hammers, or a litany of other tools.

Section 14-56.4. Preparation to commit breaking or entering into motor vehicles gets very specific about cars for some reason. This section states,

"(a) For purposes of this section:
(1) "Manipulative key" means a key, device or instrument, other than a key that is designed to operate a specific lock, that can be variably positioned and manipulated in a vehicle keyway to operate a lock or cylinder or multiple locks or cylinders, including a wiggle key, jiggle key, or rocket key.
(2) "Master key" means a key that operates all the keyed locks or cylinders in a similar type or group of locks.
(b) It is unlawful for any person to possess any motor vehicle master key, manipulative key, or other motor vehicle lock-picking device or hot wiring device, with the intent to commit any felony, larceny, or unauthorized use of a motor propelled conveyance.
(c) It is unlawful for a person to willfully buy, sell, or transfer a motor vehicle master key, manipulative key or device, key-cutting device, lock pick or lock-picking device, or hot wiring device, designed to open or capable of opening the door or trunk of any motor vehicle or of starting the engine of a motor vehicle for use in any manner prohibited by this section."

In this section part (a) clearly covers the "jiggler" tools, rakes, or Lishi picks we might use when working on an automotive lock. Part (b) is again the crux of things since it says "with the intent to". The same considerations for intent apply here. Part (c) starts to sound like you might get in trouble for giving someone a set of "jiggler" tools, but it also says "in any manner prohibited by this section", which means the intent consideration in part (b) applies.

Traveling with lock picks

It should be noted that these are the laws of North Carolina, and that the laws in other states may be different. Some states don't regulate the locksmith profession at all nor lock picks. Others state that possession implies intent. Make sure to look up the laws for the state you are traveling to or may land in during an emergency.

The best reference we've found for this is the Laws page on the TOOOL website. The TSA never prohibited traveling with lock picks, but now they've gotten more explicit. They are actually listed on the What Can I Bring? page. Just be careful to remove any lock bypass tool that looks like a shiv or shank, or any long pointy files, and you'll be OK. If you make a mistake and you're flying out of one of those "possession = intent" states with picks in your bag, don't fret. The TSA is tasked with enforcing their own regulations and federal law, not the laws of the state you are flying from.

If you're bringing some locks with you for the plane ride, or you travel "carry-on only", then it's best practice to separate the locks from the rest of your baggage. Put just the locks in a small bag or box that can be opened before placing it on the conveyor belt for the scanner. Padlocks can even just be put on a carabiner. Typically the agent running the scanner will be able to tell that the container just has locks in it, or they'll take a quick look at it and send it on vs. calling for a secondary bag check.

Encounters with Law Enforcement

If you are stopped by law enforcement the best advice I can give you is to keep your mouth shut until such time that you're questioned about your lock picking tools. As we established above, possessing them is not illegal, so keep your @#$% together and don't act guilty! If questioned about your gear, be honest and respectful, and don't lie about why you have it. However, keep in mind that just because something is legal, that doesn't mean a law enforcement officer can't take it away from you. If they suspect that there was intent to commit a crime, or feel their safety is in jeopardy for any reason, they can and will take your tools away from you. You may even be detained. It's up to the legal process to determine whether or not you were in violation of any laws, so if you try to argue your case on the street it's not likely you'll get far.

Also remember to use your head. Some of us like to keep common keys or a handcuff key on our keychain, or maybe a mini set of picks in our wallets. If you're heading to the courthouse or police station for any matter, however innocent it is, it's best to just leave those things at home or in your car. Some of these locations, especially courthouses, are going to have scanners that might detect these items and then you have a lot of unnecessary explaining to do!

In Conclusion

  • Lock picks are not illegal in NC. The state must prove intent to commit a crime.
  • Don't accept compensation for opening any lock
  • Know the laws of wherever you are traveling with lock picks
  • Be honest and respectful with law enforcement if questioned
  • Use your head regarding what might look suspicious